If David Stern really wants to be as big as the biggest NBA stars, I have some good news. He now has something in common with Shaquille O'Neal: There is no defense for him. He has turned the Paul situation into a complete farce. Paul will be a Laker ... no, Stern nixed it. Paul will be a Clipper ... nope, spoiled again. Nobody knows what will happen next, but as far as Stern's credibility is concerned, it hardly matters. Every conspiracy theorist in NBA history, including many who work in the league, now has his snapshot of Stern on a grassy knoll.
As a general rule, leagues should not own individual teams. It is one of the most obvious conflicts of interest imaginable. But once Stern decided the NBA would take over the Hornets until a permanent buyer could be found, there was a simple way to implement it: The league would hire a general manager, set a budget and step back. The league could re-evaluate both the general manager and the budget at the end of the season -- and only at the end of the season. The GM would have freedom to make any move he pleased, as long as he stuck to the budget.
Sure, the Hornets might get torn apart by the GM's mistakes. But that is a worthwhile risk, because the league would maintain its most important asset: credibility. Instead, we have Stern trying to micromanage the biggest trade of the NBA season.
The NBA's defense is that it nixed the Lakers' trade for Paul for "basketball reasons." Nobody who is sober actually believes that, but guess what? It doesn't matter. Even if the NBA did block the trade for "basketball reasons," the league is still dead wrong.
The league office is officially doing what cynics have accused it of doing for years: playing favorites. Why should Stern get to decide that the Clippers offered a better package than the Lakers, or that some other team offers the best package of all? What happens if New Orleans finally trades Paul? If one of the new Hornets does something to merit a suspension, will Stern ignore it, because he wants his trade to look good?
The NBA can claim it is protecting the value of its investment in the Hornets. But this isn't about money. Twenty-nine other franchises own a piece of the Hornets. Even if the difference between a "good" Chris Paul trade and a "bad" Chris Paul trade is $90 million -- which would be absurdly high -- that still only works out to $3.1 million per owner. These guys spend more than that on their third-string butler.
This is about power. It's about wrestling the league away from the stars who want so much more than money or championships. They want to dictate the terms of their career. We were all appalled by LeBron James' "Decision" -- at this point, even LeBron sounds appalled by it -- but the only difference between what LeBron did and what other stars are doing was the poor public execution of it. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Paul, Deron Williams ... a generation of stars is using the leverage of free agency for two years before the actual free agency hits.
The NBA only owns one team, and it is convenient for Stern that Paul happens to play for that team. This is Stern's chance to show who is boss. The problem is that he is hurting the one entity he claims he is protecting. This is a disaster for the Hornets.
New Orleans general manager Dell Demps has to trade Paul. He has no choice. This isn't the same as the Dwight Howard situation in Orlando. The Magic have some hope there -- it's a good team and has helped Howard make it to the Finals.
The Magic can keep Howard and gamble that he would rather sign a true maximum-salary deal in Orlando next summer than take $30 million less to play for a team of similar talent somewhere else. It would be a risk, and of course it could backfire. But I actually think the Magic should take the risk -- worst-case scenario, Howard bolts next summer, and Orlando has to rebuild then instead of rebuilding now. Anyway, the point is that Orlando could try it. And one reason Orlando could try it is BECAUSE SOMEBODY ACTUALLY OWNS THE MAGIC.
The Hornets are worse than the Magic, and they play in a deeper conference, and they just lost David West to the Pacers, and -- I may have mentioned this -- NOBODY KNOWS WHO WILL RUN THE TEAM. Paul would sooner nominate David Stern for the Nobel Peace Prize than re-sign with this Hornets franchise.
Plus, keeping Paul could be a disaster. The Hornets have to play 66 games in 123 days, and Paul has a knee problem. Do the math on that one. Do you really think his value will go up this year, playing that schedule with a lousy team around him? Last year Paul had his lowest scoring average, field-goal percentage and assist total in three years. Right now GMs see that as an aberration. But if he has another good-but-not-great year, it will hurt his stock.
(It may seem crazy now to imply that Paul, at 26, is on the decline -- at his best, he is an MVP candidate, and we expect NBA MVP candidates to be excellent into their early 30s. I hope last year was not the start of a trend for him. But who knows? People thought 25-year-old Penny Hardaway would be great for a long time, too.)
Now Demps is stuck. He can't do his job, and he can't even quit -- because that would be the ultimate public rebuke of Stern, and when will Demps ever get another GM job after that? All he can do is keep submitting trades and hope one of them gets approved.
Whenever this saga ends, however it ends, what can Stern win? Stars are like agents or referees: You can complain about them, yell at them and try to intimidate them, but they will still be there. You have to deal with them.
The best franchises find ways to manage their stars' egos and complement their talents. The worst ones stand on false principles and turn their teams into a dysfunctional mess. We now know why David Stern has stood by so many lousy owners over the years: He is one.